The value of stories and storytelling is the core of New Zealand author Lloyd Jones’ award-winning novel, Mister Pip. Charles Dickens and Great Expectations has enormous impact on the life of a young Matilda growing up in Papua New Guinea: her impromptu teacher Mr Watts, like Scheherazade in 1001 Arabian Nights, spins tales to save lives. There’s also more than a nod in the direction of Biblical stories as well as traditional island folklore.
The outbreak of civil war on the small tropical island of Bougainville has left the young Matilda and Dolores, her God-fearing mother, stranded in their isolated coastal village. With her father working overseas and most of the young men joining the rebel army, Matilda and the remaining villagers find themselves at the mercy of fate.
Living among them is the eccentric Mr Watts, the only white person, and his wife, the crazed Grace, native of the village. As the deprivations of the civil war bite deep, so Mr Watts becomes the self-appointed teacher to the village. But there is only one book – Great Expectations by Charles Dickens. The children are transported to nineteenth century Victorian London and an alien language as Watts reads aloud the novel and struggles to explain ‘frost’ and ‘rimy morning’ to the islanders.
Rumours and stories of the fighting reach the villagers, yet their daily lives are not unduly interrupted. Many of the children become transfixed by the fate of the orphan boy Pip and his benefactor Abel Magwitch. But Dolores becomes deeply suspicious of the non-Christian teachings and beliefs of Watts. She sets in motion a chain of events that have devastating consequences for the whole village as rebels followed by government forces followed by the return of the rebels kill, rape and maim.
Years later, now a Dickens scholar, Matilda visits New Zealand to explore the earlier life of her teacher and mentor. There she discovers the extent Watts had fictionalised his life story in its telling to the rebel soldiers and how two fictions – his own and that of Charles Dickens – were deeply intertwined.
Mister Pip received rapturous critical acclaim on its initial publication in 2006, referred to as “magical”, “poignant” and “haunting”. It collected the overall Commonwealth Writers’ Prize for 2007 and was shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize (it lost out to Anne Enright and The Gathering).
In its remarkably short 220 pages, the award-winning novel is broad in scope, deeply symbolic yet deceptively simplistic. Scenes on the island and the fear of the civil war are powerful and compelling. Yet, towards the end, Mister Pip loses its way, as Matilda, having survived the civil war, has become an academic scholar living in a bedsit in London. The warmth and honesty is strangely missing from a novel that throughout has been full of charm (if occasionally erring on the patronising side).